I spent this past Saturday debating free speech at Oscarsborg in Norway. Oscarsborg is a military fortress based on an small island in the Oslo Fiord across from the beautiful town of Drøbak. The fortress played a crucial role when Germany invaded Norway in 1940. The German forces were lead by the cruiser Blücher heading towards Oslo. It was, however, attacked from Oscarsborg by the small Norwegian army and sank. This delayed the occupation, and the Royal family, the government and the parliament were evacuated in time before the Germans took over control of the capital and the rest of the country.
Sounds like a good place to discuss the need to fight appeasement in our time. Deputy minister of foreign affairs Raymond Johansen and bishop Ole Christian Kvarme had to take a lot of verbal punches from the audience for their appeasement during the cartoons crisis back in January and February 2006. At that time the dean of the Oslo chapter of the state church went to Qatar to see the TV-imam Yusuf al-Qaradawi and apologize for the republishing of the Danish cartoons by a Christian newspaper in Norway with a circulation of less than 20,000. The church official later acknowledged that he didn’t know who Qaradawi was, but never the less he called him a moderate Muslim. Well if being moderate implies support for suicide terrorism, the killing of homosexuals and law based inequality between man and woman, then what will it take to be a radical? I can’t wait to hear the answer.
During the debate last Saturday the bishop repeated his criticism of the cartoons and pointed to the difference in perception of cartoons in Scandinavia and the Muslim Middle East. In the Middle East, he said, cartoons are perceived as a propaganda tool, in the West it’s entertainment and a commentary on life and current affairs, and therefore we have to be very careful and think twice when we publish cartoons on issues being sensitive to people in the Middle East.
I am not making this up. A leading figure of the Norwegian state church insist that our media be edited by dictators and clerics. Who said appeasement?
Listening to those words I wandered what the Norwegian cartoonist Finn Graff was thinking. He was in the audience but didn’t join the debate. Graff is a cartoonist with a international name, and he was one of the reasons why Magazinet republished the Mohammed cartoons. January 5 2006 Graff gave an interview to Norwegian radio saying that he would never make a cartoon of Islam’s prophet. “I am afraid of having my throat cut,” he said.
Usually, Graff doesn’t hold back when it comes to religious or other kinds of insult. In the seventies he depicted Israel’s Prime Minister Menachim Begin as commandant of a death-camp. A few years ago Ariel Sharon was given the same role in a cartoon, and Christians have been ridiculed over and over again, but death threats never followed. Just a few law suits back in the seventies. In 2005 Graff made a cartoon showing Christians marching in brown-shirts with the swastika being replaced by the Christian cross. In refusing to make a cartoon of the prophet Graff explicitly pointed to death threats against his Danish colleagues and the killing of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 for having made a documentary critical of the treatment of women in Islam.
“A line has been crossed when people react with threats of violence or cutting one’s throat. Somewhere you have draw a line,” Graff stressed in an interview with Magazinet accompanying the republication of the Mohammed cartoons.
He said that he respects the Islamic ban on images of the prophet, so his decision to refrain from making a Mohammed cartoons is equally based on respect and fear.
It’s fascinating, isn’t it?
The Norwegian deputy minister of foreign affairs Raymond Johansen reiterated through out the debate that his government during the cartoon crisis never sacrificed the principle of free speech:
“All the way we defended the right to free speech.”
Well, here is the text of an e-mail the Norwegian government sent to all its diplomatic missions in the Middle East. It’s an instruction to diplomats what to tell the authorities in the dictatorships in the region:
”I regret that the publication of the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in the Norwegian newspaper Magazinet has caused unrest in Muslim communities. I fully understand that these cartoons may be perceived as an insult to Muslims all over the world. Islam serves as the spiritual roots to a big part of the population of the world. Their faith deserves our respect.
The cartoons in the Christian newspaper Magazinet aren’t constructive for building the necessary bridges between people of different religions and ethnic background. On the contrary they contribute to mistrust and unnecessary conflict.
Let me be clear: The Norwegian government condemns every action and utterance that expresses disdain for people because of their religion or ethnicity.
Norway has always supported the UN’s work against religious intolerance and racism, and find this work very important to prevent mistrust and conflicts. Tolerance, mutual respect and dialogue constitute basic values in Norwegian society as in our foreign policy.
Free speech serves as a girder in Norwegian society. This also implies tolerance for opinions that everybody doesn’t agree with. At the same time our law and international obligations draw lines for hate speech and smear.”
What a defense for free speech! Neville Chamberlain can rest in peace.